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Colorado’s Denver, the Mile-High City

Skyline, Bronco Buster sculpture, Civic Center Park in Denver, Colorado


Denver, Colorado – Images by Lee Foster

by Lee Foster

Denver has savored some colorful metaphoric descriptions of itself over the years, starting with Mile-High City. The unusual elevation of the city, yet its position on the plain at the base of the mountains, is its first obvious distinction. Many visitors mistakenly assume that Denver is in the mountains. To the contrary, Denver lies on the plains.

Because Denver became the refined home of gold and silver barons in the latter part of the 19th century, a second moniker arose: Queen of the Plains. The wealth in Denver has always been seen as a contrast with the roughness of the plains to the east or the mountains to the west. The city began as a staging area for the 1859 “Pikes Peak or Bust” gold rush. A few flakes were found in Denver where the South Platte River meets Cherry Creek. The era was only a decade after the California Gold Rush, so the mere mention of the word “gold” started a stampede. More substantial mineral deposits were in the mountains, however, at Central City and later at Cripple Creek. Mining millionaires, such as H. A. W. Tabor and James J. Brown, set up their baronial spreads in Denver.

Due to Denver’s critical position on the trail going west, a third phrase, Gateway To The West, was also used. Although Denver exhibits a westward tilt, it is actually just 346 miles from the geographic center of the country. Then and now, Denver serves as the gateway. The pleasure traveler of today has supplanted the pioneer of yesterday.

Throughout its history, from the early gold period to the more recent era, Denver has lived a boom and bust existence. In the energy-expensive late 1970s and early 1980s, Denver boomed, due to the oil shale and coal deposits in Colorado. During the 1980s, Denver went through a bust equal to the vicissitudes of the gold rush era. Overbuilding and the collapse of energy prices led, in 1984, to record numbers of savings-and-loan collapses, home repossessions, and low hotel occupancy rates. The high rollers on the high rolling plains lost their socks and their shirts, but not for long.

The last decade has become a more congenial time for Denver. The population has increased and the populace is highly educated, boasting one of the higher number of college graduates per capita in the country. The economy diversified into light aerospace and communication, balancing the ranching and farming in the outlying areas of Colorado. Denver is moving, metaphorically and sports-wise, further into the big leagues. The pro baseball team, The Colorado Rockies, joined the existing football Denver Broncos and basketball Denver Nuggets. The opening of a baseball stadium, Coors Field, right in the lower downtown area (affectionately called LoDo) helped turn the area around. LoDo is a thriving district with brew pubs, art galleries, and loft living spaces filling formerly dilapidated brick warehouses. To round out the sports picture, Denver has a pro hockey team, the Colorado Avalanche.

Western Culture

For the traveler, Denver has much to offer, starting with its legacy of western art, history, and culture.

The Denver Art Museum’s 17,000-piece American Indian exhibit is a major display of Native American Art. The establishment deserves credit as one of the first to take Indian art seriously, beyond merely an ethnographic record. Design motifs are catalogued in everything from tepee construction to weaving, petroglyphs to feather ornamentation. Adjacent to the Museum, you’ll find the house of the lady who helped put together the collection. The Byers-Evans House tells the story of Ann Evans, daughter of Colorado’s second territorial governor.

One unusual aspect of the West, overlooked elsewhere, is celebrated in Denver. That is the role of black cowboys, who are said to have made up a third of the cowboys in many of the major roundups on the Great Plains. The Black American West Museum is a tour de force, started by Paul Stewart, a black man who grew up in Iowa. The museum shows the fascinating history of blacks who fully participated in the “winning of the West.”

The early and still contemporary heart of Denver is its handsome State Capitol Building. Colorado movers and shakers spared no expenses on this structure, starting with its gold-plated dome (200 ounces of 24K gold, replaced now three times) and extending down in the building to lovely Colorado rose onyx, used lavishly as a wainscoting. The entire world’s supply of this stone, mined near Beulah, Colorado, was used in the building. No more of this stone has ever been found.

From the upper balcony of the Capitol building, you can get a panoramic view of the city and the Rockies on a clear day. In fact, you can see about 150 miles of the Front Range of the Rockies. The chances of a clear day are good because Denver has about 300 sunny days a year, concentrating its 14 inches of annual rainfall mainly in the spring months. Views of some of the 1,000 peaks in Colorado over two miles high can be spectacular, guiding your eye all the way from the Wyoming border down to Pikes Peak. Local author Dabney Collins caught the exuberant feel of the view in 1917 when he wrote, “When I walk down a Denver street, I always feel as if I were listening to a brass band.” A marked 15th step on the west side of the Capitol is the photo opportunity spot for any family member who wants to be pictured exactly a mile above sea level.

Modern Denver focuses its attention on the energy industry, exploring for more fossil fuels in the Rockies. The second major industry is tourism, the ultimate renewable resource. Summer visitors enjoy Denver’s elaborate pattern of nearby mountain parks, over 20,000 acres of public lands, plus the state’s gem, Rocky Mountain National Park. Half of Colorado is owned by the taxpayers, opening wonderful territories to hiking, fishing, camping, and meditating over the beauty of nature. Colorado boasts three national parks, five national monuments, 11 national forests, three national recreation areas, and 30 state parks. Winter visitors come to Denver for Colorado’s many world-famous ski slopes, such as Vail and Aspen.

The best place near Denver to get a taste of the Rockies is at Red Rocks Park, 30 minutes west of the city. Stop in at the Trading Post at the park and get a map of the 1.4-mile trail in the park. The walk takes you past gorgeous red rock outcroppings, set usually against a deep azure sky. To get into the heart of the Rockies, drive another hour west on I-70, then south at Idaho Springs on the Mt. Evans Road, one of the highest paved roads in North America. You may see mountain goats on this high road drive between Echo and Summit lakes.

Transportation Hub

The Denver International Airport opened in 1995 and is a remarkable air hub.  The size of this new airport is impressive. Covering 53 square miles, twice the size of Manhattan Island, the Denver International Airport was designed to service 110 million passengers a year. The airport terminal itself is a handsome architectural statement. The main building consists of white fabric peaks that mimic the Rockies to the west.

Denver Attractions

Modern rail and bus transport also make Denver a logical national crossroads and transportation crossroads. The irony, however, is that Denver, when it was founded, was not on a road, not even on a railroad, not close to a lake, and not adjacent to a navigable river. Denver happened to be where a few flakes of gold were found in 1858. A mining camp quickly formed. The first permanent structure was a saloon.

If you get a car and drive around Denver, you’ll find a clean and green city with plenty of tree-lined boulevards. The dominant architecture recalls three boom periods. First came the Victorians, when silver, discovered in Leadville, bought respectability and culture in Denver. Then came the turn-of-the-century mansions, financed with the gold from Cripple Creek. And finally, 16 skyscrapers were built in the downtown area during the energy boom period, 1980-1983, including three that were over 50 stories high. There are other ways to see the city than by car. You can rent a bike, for example, and enjoy the 130 miles of paved, off-street bike paths in the urban region, including stretches through downtown on Cherry Creek and along the South Platte River.

Denver’s attractions continue to offer more appeal to the traveler with each passing year. The resurgence of the LoDo area is a treat, with many brewpubs offering hand-crafted beers. LoDo’s art shops, the huge bookstore known as the Tattered Cover, and the good people-watching restaurants, such as Marlowe’s on the 16th Street Mall, make Denver more of a street-life city than before.

Skyline, Bronco Buster sculpture, Civic Center Park in Denver, Colorado
Skyline, Bronco Buster sculpture, Civic Center Park in Denver, Colorado

Denverites also have some unusual traits about which to boast. A federal study by the Coalition for Excess Weight Risk concluded that Coloradans are the “thinnest” people in the country. The congenial outdoor climate lends itself to skiing in winter and hikes at parks such as Red Rocks in summer. Travelers to Denver often express surprise at the relative mildness of the climate. Summer travelers expect the torridness of some other Plains locations, but the elevation makes Denver mild. The relative aridity suppresses the humidity. Few summer trips are spoiled by rain. The sunlight is intense, making Denver and the Colorado Rockies prime sunblock country, and the elevation is high, which accounts for the presence of numerous solar enthusiasts, with their solar electrical cells, direct-gain space heaters, and greenhouses. Winters are also surprisingly benign and relatively snow-free, compared to the mountains to the west, where legendary amounts of snow fall, a fact that is duly appreciated by skiers. The average winter high in Denver is a balmy 45 degrees.

Denver has its underlying tensions, however. The two-million residents wrestle with the mixed blessing of growth and development. Will the water supply be sufficient to sustain the population? Will Denver succeed in maintaining its small-town feel or will it become a more anonymous big city? The traffic snarls become more burdensome each year. The bumper stickers with “Native” on them suggest a suppressed hostility to the new arrivals, who are especially numerous from California. Denverites have been known to use the verb “californicate.” Denverites also see themselves in a style clash with the wealthy mountain communities to the west, such as Aspen and Vail. As one Denverite put it, “Aspen is Manhattan with bumps on it.”

Denverites enjoy what some call a squeaky clean government style. As one Denverite put it, this is partly as a result of the ranch tradition in Colorado. A ranch child learns two things: to close the gate and to keep one’s word. To close the gate is the act of responsibility. Everyone has to be responsible on the ranch, to close the gate, to keep in the cattle, for the family to survive. And deals are done on a handshake, meaning your word had better be good. If you promise something, come through. Eventually this ethic works its way up through the government structure. Deals are done over the table, not under the table, in Denver.

Accommodations in Denver

Lodging in Denver can put you into the historic story or locate you in a contemporary hotel. Some of these places are worth a visit, even if you don’t stay there.

The Brown Palace Hotel, one of the beautiful grand dame structures in the West, wears its age with grace. This red-sandstone structure occupies a triangular lot in the downtown. Inside, you’ll find an ornate atrium, topped with a stained-glass window. Further Victorian and Art Deco touches make this an inviting place for afternoon tea or a glass of sherry as the harpist strums.

The Brown Palace Hotel is worth pausing to contemplate. On August 12, 1892, Henry Cordes Brown opened the doors of his regal Brown Palace Hotel, an edifice that was destined to become one of the major architectural treasures of the Rockies. He was a carpenter-turned-real-estate-mogul from Ohio, who came to Denver in 1860 after adventures in California and Peru.

Brown’s lot for the hotel had an unusual triangular configuration, which allowed his architect, Frank E. Edbrooke, to provide exterior-facing windows for each of the hotel’s 400 rooms. Brown selected a style that we now call Victorian, with a strong Italian Renaissance feel to it. As the exterior stone, he chose Colorado red granite and Arizona sandstone. He commissioned artist James Whitehouse to create 26 medallions, carved in stone, each showing a native Rocky Mountain animal. The medallions can be seen between the seventh-floor windows.

For the interior, Brown insisted on the finest. The hotel’s own artesian well pumped (and still pumps) pure water from 720 feet below the surface to the hotel rooms. He also created one of the first hotel atriums, then a novel idea. Brown wanted to be remembered. His profile is etched into stone near the entrance on Broadway.

In the lobby, below the elegant eight-story atrium and stained-glass roof, you’ll see commemorative displays of old china, dance cards, menus, and guest registers. Take time to sit in the lobby’s red-leather overstuffed chairs and sip a sherry or a glass of tea, munching on the hotel’s proprietary macaroons. Gaze up at the six tiers of green-painted wrought-iron grillwork. Appreciate the potted palms, oriental carpets, white marble floors, gold Mexican-onyx walls and fireplace, and the ever-present large floral display that is the lobby centerpiece.

Any time of the year is a good time to enjoy the hotel’s restaurants. The chefs put a European flare into the local products, even as they did in the 19th century. Try the Rocky Mountain trout meuniere and the western steak with “sauce Francaise.” Colorado lamb is another choice item on the menu (Colorado ranks fourth in the U.S. among lamb-producing states). Diners can choose between the airy openness of Ellyngton’s, the formal elegance of the Palace Arms, and the informality of the Ship Tavern. Each of the restaurants has a distinct decor. The Palace Arms, for example, has replicas of flags prominent during the exploration of the American continent. There are French hunting prints, plus Napoleon’s reputed dueling pistols and bridle. The Ship Tavern has model replicas of ships from the American Clipper period, including the Flying Cloud, fastest of the clippers.

An opposite-end-of-the-spectrum hotel choice would be The Oxford in LoDo. This antique-rich property is the same vintage as The Brown Palace, but more modest in scale. Visit its red Art Deco bar called the Cruise Room, not to be missed.

Dining in Denver

Dining in Denver can also put you in the mood of the Old West. A favorite in-city restaurant is the Buckhorn Exchange, one of the city’s oldest saloons and restaurants. The place exudes western memorabilia, including some 235 trophy animal heads. You can dine on buffalo, elk, and deer, all of which are now raised like beef cattle.

Outside of the city, in the hills west of Denver, make a culinary visit to The Fort, a re-creation of the 1834 Bent’s Fort Trading Post on the Santa Fe trail. The founding proprietor, Sam Arnold,  built The Fort in 1962 and claimed to serve more buffalo here than at any other restaurant on the planet. As a meat, buffalo rides high in the current health boom. Buffalo meat is high in protein, low in fat and cholesterol, and it tastes good, too. Arnold put the food in the context of Rockies and Southwest culture, showing generous regional appreciation for the chilis of New Mexico. While driving on I-70 a few miles beyond The Fort, you can see grazing buffalo at Genesee Park, 20 miles west of Denver.

At the Fort you will learn the Mountain Man’s Toast, which runs as follows:

Here’s to the childs what’s come afore.

‘An here’s to the pilgrims what comes arter.

May yer trails be free of Grizzlies,

Yer packs filled with plews,

And fat buffler in yer pot! Waugh!

The beverage of choice in Denver should be beer. Coors Brewery, open for tours and a sample of the product, is billed as one of the world’s largest breweries. In fact, Colorado claims to produce more beer than any other state. Besides the big boys, Coors and Anheuser-Busch, the appreciator of beer can sample the micro-breweries of Denver, such as the Wynkoop Brewing Company. There are more than a dozen boutique breweries in Denver. Wynkoop is one of the oldest, largest, and makes an ambitious culinary effort. Try the wild and domestic mushrooms sauteed in Sagebrush Stout with shallots and garlic on a crisp risotto cake.

Shopping in Denver

Shopping in Denver tends to focus around developments such as historic Larimer Square (1400 Larimer Street) or modern Cherry Creek Mall, a million-square-foot extravaganza. Denver is the largest city within 600 miles, so its role is unquestioned as the Shopping Capital of the Rocky Mountain West.

Larimer Square echoes Denver of the 1880s, alive today with street festivals, galleries, and restaurants, housed in buildings with gas lamps, brick facades, and fine Victorian woodwork. Larimer Square is just off the mile-long 16th Street Mall, a pedestrian walkway that unifies the downtown.

One interesting shop is Gart Brothers Sports Castle, which boasts that it is one of the largest sporting goods stores in the world. Even in summer, you can do a test run down a simulated ski slope.

Perennial Denver

Annual events in Denver may fit into your travel plans. During summer, outdoor music concerts are held at the natural amphitheatre in Red Rocks Park. A Festival of the Mountain and Plain winds down the summer for the Labor Day Weekend. From October through May the Denver Symphony plays in the Boettcher Concert Hall at the Denver Performing Arts Complex.

In winter, the major attractions are the Christmas Lighting in December and the rodeo in January. Thousands of visitors come each December to enjoy the lighting of Denver’s City and County Building, which residents claim is one of the world’s largest Christmas lightings. The National Western Stock Show and Rodeo, held in January, claims to be one of the world’s largest indoor rodeos. January is the time when working cowboys and ranchers can take time off from their spreads to participate. The show, dating from 1906, is both a working stock show for breeders to sell their animals and a performing venue for 23 different rodeo skills. Overall, the show has the feel of the authentic world of western ranching. The mystique of Buffalo Bill Cody hovers over this grassland-rich city. Cody’s graveyard lies on a prominence known as Lookout Mountain, west of the city.

Children will particularly enjoy the huge gold nugget, one of the largest found in Colorado, at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, where the skeletons of prehistoric animals also enthrall the younger set. The Prehistoric Journey introduction to the age of the dinosaurs is outstanding. Denver nurtures a respectable Zoo, with a credible collection of large cats and hooved mammals. A primates facility and re-creations of tropical rain forests are further attractions. Elitch Gardens, an amusement park in the downtown area, will interest children of all ages with its rides. Another thrill for youngsters and their parents is meeting impersonators of characters from the Wild West, such as Buffalo Bill, who make scheduled appearances at the Buffalo Bill Memorial Museum and Grave, atop Lookout Mountain, west of Denver. Check with the Convention and Visitors Bureau to schedule your visit when the ghost of the famous frontier scout and showman will appear.

After a visit to Denver, you’ll better understand the metaphoric power of the city’s descriptions as a mile-high, queenly, gateway destination.

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Denver: If You Go

The tourism information source for Denver is the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau, www.denver.org.